Will to power

Will to power

The will to power (German: "der Wille zur Macht") is widely seen as a prominent concept in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. The will to power describes what Nietzsche may have believed to be the main driving force in man; achievement, ambition, the striving to reach the highest possible position in life; these are all manifestations of the will to power.

Alfred Adler incorporated the will to power into his individual psychology. This can be contrasted to the other Viennese schools of psychotherapy: Sigmund Freud's pleasure principle (will to pleasure) and Victor Frankl's logotherapy (will to meaning). Each of these schools advocate and teach a very different main driving force in "man". The "will to power" has been "identified" in nature in the dominance hierarchies studied in many living species.[citation needed]



Friedrich Nietzsche found early influence from Schopenhauer, whom he first discovered in 1865. Schopenhauer puts a central emphasis on will and in particular has a concept of the "will to live". Writing a generation before Nietzsche, Schopenhauer explained that the universe and everything in it is driven by a primordial will to live, which results in all living creatures' desire to avoid death and procreate. For Schopenhauer, this will is the most fundamental aspect of reality — more fundamental even than being.

Another important influence is Roger Joseph Boscovich, whom Nietzsche discovered and learned about through his reading of Friedrich Albert Lange's 1865 Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism), which Nietzsche read in 1866. As early as 1872, Nietzsche went on to study Boscovich’s book Theoria Philosophia Naturalis for himself.[1] Nietzsche makes his only reference in his published works to Boscovich in Beyond Good and Evil where he declares war on "soul-atomism"[2]§ Boscovich had rejected the idea of "materialistic atomism" which Nietzsche calls "one of the best refuted theories there are."[3] The idea of centers of force would become central to Nietzsche's later theories of will to power.

Nietzsche began to speak of the "Desire for Power" (Machtgelüst), which appeared in The Wanderer and his Shadow (1880) and Daybreak (1881). Machtgelüst, in these works, is the pleasure of the feeling of power and the hunger to overpower.

Wilhelm Roux published his The Struggle of Parts in the Organism (Der Kampf der Theile im Organismus) in 1881, which Nietzsche first read the same year.[4] The book was a response to Darwinian theory, proposing an alternative mode of evolution. Roux was a disciple of and influenced by Ernst Haeckel[5] who believed the struggle for existence occurred at the cellular level. The various cells and tissue struggle for finite resources, so that only the strongest survive. Through this mechanism, the body grows stronger and better adapted. Lacking modern genetic theory and assuming a lamarckian or pangenetic model of inheritance, the theory had plausibility at the time.[citation needed]

Nietzsche began to expand on the concept of Machtgelüst in The Gay Science (1882), where in a section titled “On the doctrine of the feeling of power,”[6] he connects the desire for cruelty with the pleasure in the feeling of power. Elsewhere in The Gay Science he notes that it is only “in intellectual beings that pleasure, displeasure, and will are to be found,”[7] excluding the vast majority of organisms from the desire for power.

Léon Dumont (1837–77), whose 1875 book Théorie Scientifique de La Sensibilité, le Plaisir et la Peine Nietzsche read in 1883,[8] seems to have exerted some influence on this concept. Dumont believed that pleasure is related to increases in force.[9] In Wanderer and Daybreak, Nietzsche earlier had speculated that pleasures such as cruelty, are pleasurable because of exercise of power. But Dumont, in 1883, provided a physiological basis for Nietzsche’s speculation. Dumont’s theory also would have seemed to confirm Nietzsche’s theory that pleasure and pain are reserved for intellectual beings, since, according to Dumont, pain and pleasure require a coming to consciousness and not just a sensing.

In 1883 Nietzsche coined the phrase “Wille zur Macht” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The concept, at this point, is no longer limited to only those intellectual beings that can actually experience the feeling of power; it applies to all life. The phrase Wille zur Macht first appears in part 1, "1001 Goals" (1883), then in part 2, in two sections, “Self-Overcoming” and “Redemption” (later in 1883). “Self-Overcoming” describes it in most detail, saying it is an “unexhausted procreative will of life.” There is will to power where there is life and even the strongest living things will risk their lives for more power. This suggests that the will to power is stronger than the will to survive.

Schopenhauer's "Will to life" thus became a subsidiary to the will to power, which is the stronger will. Nietzsche thinks his notion of the will to power is far more useful than Schopenhauer's will to live for explaining various events, especially human behavior—for example, Nietzsche uses the will to power to explain both ascetic, life-denying impulses and strong, life-affirming impulses in the European tradition, as well as both master and slave morality. He also finds the will to power to offer much richer explanations than utilitarianism's notion that all people really want to be happy, or the Platonist's notion that people want to be unified with the Good.[citation needed]

Nietzsche read William Rolph’s Biologische Probleme around mid-1884, and it clearly interested him;[10] his copy is heavily annotated.[11] He made many notes concerning Rolph. Rolph was another evolutionary anti-Darwinist like Roux, who wished to argue for evolution by a different mechanism than the struggle for existence. Rolph argued that all life seeks primarily to expand itself. Organisms fulfill this need through assimilation, trying to make as much of what is found around them into part of themselves, for example by seeking to increase intake and nutriment. Life forms are naturally insatiable in this way.

Nietzsche's next published work is Beyond Good and Evil (1886), where the influence of Rolph seems apparent. Nietzsche writes, "Even the body within which individuals treat each other as equals ... will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant — not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power."[12] The influence of Rolph and its connection to “will to power,” also continues in book 5 of Gay Science (1887) where Nietzsche describes will to power as the instinct for “expansion of power,” fundamental to all life.[13]

Beyond Good and Evil has the most references to “will to power” in his published works, appearing in 11 aphorisms;[14] this was the time of greatest development of the idea.

Karl Wilhelm von Nägeli's 1884 book Mechanisch-physiologische Theorie der Abstammungslehre, which Nietzsche acquired around 1886 and subsequently read closely,[15] had considerable influence on his theory of will to power. Nietzsche wrote a letter to Franz Overbeck about it, noting that it has “been sheepishly put aside by Darwinists”.[16] Nägeli believed in a “perfection principle,” which led to greater complexity. He called the seat of heritability the idioplasma, and argued, with a military metaphor, that a more complex, complicatedly ordered idioplasma would usually defeat a simpler rival.[17] In other words, he is also arguing for internal evolution, similar to Roux, except emphasizing complexity as the main factor instead of strength.

Thus, Dumont’s pleasure in the expansion of power, Roux’s internal struggle, Nägeli’s drive towards complexity, and Rolph’s principle of insatiability and assimilation are fused together into the biological side of Nietzsche’s theory of will to power, which is developed in a number of places in his published writings.[18] Having derived the “will to power” from three anti-Darwin evolutionists, as well as Dumont, it seems appropriate that he should use his “will to power” as an anti-Darwinian explanation of evolution. He expresses a number of times[19] the idea that adaptation and the struggle to survive is a secondary drive in the evolution of animals, behind the desire to expand one’s power—the will to power.

Nonetheless, in his notebooks he continues to expand the theory of the will to power.[20] Influenced by his earlier readings of Boscovich, he began to develop a physics of the Will to Power. The idea of matter as centers of force is translated into matter as centers of will to power. Nietzsche wanted to slough off the theory of matter, which he viewed as a relic of the metaphysics of substance.[21]

These ideas of an all inclusive physics or metaphysics built upon the will to power does not appear to arise anywhere in his published works or in any of the final books published posthumously, except in the above mentioned aphorism from Beyond Good & Evil, where he references Boscovich (section 12). It does recur in his notebooks, but not all scholars want to consider these ideas as part of his thought.[22]

Throughout the 1880s, in his notebooks, Nietzsche also developed an equally elusive theory of the “eternal recurrence of the same” and much speculation on the physical possibility of this idea and the mechanics of its actualization recur in his later notebooks, which becomes tied with his theory of will to power as a potential physics integrated with the “eternal recurrence of the same.” Taken literally as a theory for how things are, Nietzsche appeared to imagine a physical universe of perpetual struggle and force, which successively completes its cycle and returns to the beginning again and again. [23] However such a concept of eternal return was used metaphorically, and evidenced for not being taken as a literal theorem of Nietzsche for how in fact things are or aren't, by how he claimed it as a most "abysmal" of convictions amongst human values. Wherein he posed as a question to whether the eternal recurrence could be accepted by one that such would justify that one's life beyond their valuation (a trans-valuation) and be a necessary thought-experiment precursor to the overman in their perfect acceptance of all that is, for the love of life itself and amor fati.


In contemporary Nietzschean scholarship, some interpreters have emphasized the will to power as a psychological principle, because Nietzsche applies it most frequently to human behavior. However, Nietzsche sometimes seems to view the will to power as a more general force, underlying all reality not just human behavior—thus making it more directly analogous to Schopenhauer's will to live. For example, Nietzsche claims the "world is the will to power—and nothing besides!".[24] Nevertheless, in relation to the entire body of Nietzsche's works, many scholars have insisted that Nietzsche's principle of the will to power is less metaphysical and more pragmatic than Schopenhauer's will to live: while Schopenhauer thought the will to live was what was most real in the universe, Nietzsche can be understood as claiming only that the will to power is a particularly useful principle for his purposes.

Some interpreters also upheld a biological interpretation of the Wille zur Macht, making it equivalent with some kind of social Darwinism. For example the concept was appropriated by some Nazis such as Alfred Bäumler, who may have drawn influence from it or used it to justify their expansive quest for power and world domination.

This reading was criticized by Martin Heidegger in his 1930s courses on Nietzsche—suggesting that raw physical or political power was not what Nietzsche had in mind. This is reflected in the following passage from Nietzsche's notebooks:

I have found strength where one does not look for it: in simple, mild, and pleasant people, without the least desire to rule—and, conversely, the desire to rule has often appeared to me a sign of inward weakness: they fear their own slave soul and shroud it in a royal cloak (in the end, they still become the slaves of their followers, their fame, etc.) The powerful natures dominate, it is a necessity, they need not lift one finger. Even if, during their lifetime, they bury themselves in a garden house![25]

Opposed to a biological and voluntary conception of the Wille zur Macht, Heidegger also argued that the will to power must be considered in relation to the Übermensch and the thought of eternal recurrence—although this reading itself has been criticized by Mazzino Montinari as a "macroscopic Nietzsche".[26] Gilles Deleuze also emphasized the connection between the will to power and eternal return.

Opposed to this interpretation, the "Will To Power" can be understood (or misunderstood) to mean a struggle against one's surroundings that culminates in personal growth, self-overcoming, and self-perfection, and assert that the power held over others as a result of this is coincidental. Thus Nietzsche wrote:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement ("union") with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.[27]

It would be possible to claim that rather than an attempt to 'dominate over others', the "will to power" is better understood as the tenuous equilibrium in a system of forces' relations to each other. While a rock, for instance, does not have a conscious (or unconscious) "will", it nevertheless acts as a site of resistance within the "will to power" dynamic. Moreover, rather than 'dominating over others', "will to power" is more accurately positioned in relation to the subject (a mere synecdoche, both fictitious and necessary, for there is "no doer behind the deed," (see On the Genealogy of Morals)) and is an idea behind the statement that words are "seductions" within the process of self-mastery and self-overcoming. The "will to power" is thus a "cosmic" inner force acting in and through both animate and inanimate objects. Not just instincts but also higher level behaviors (even in humans) were to be reduced to the will to power. This includes both such apparently[Need quotation to verify] harmful acts as physical violence, lying, and domination, on one hand, and such apparently non-harmful acts as gift-giving, love, and praise on the other—though its manifestations can be altered significantly, such as through art and aesthetic experience. In Beyond Good and Evil, he claims that philosophers' "will to truth" (i.e., their apparent desire to dispassionately seek objective, absolute truth) is actually nothing more than a manifestation of their will to power; this will can be life-affirming or a manifestation of nihilism, but it is the will to power all the same.

Other Nietzschean interpreters dispute the suggestion that Nietzsche's concept of the will to power is merely and only a matter of narrow, harmless, humanistic self-perfection. They suggest that, for Nietzsche, power means self-perfection as well as outward, political, elitist, aristocratic domination. Nietzsche, in fact, explicitly and specifically defined the egalitarian state-idea as the embodiment of the will to power in decline:

To speak of just or unjust in itself is quite senseless; in itself, of course, no injury, assault, exploitation, destruction can be 'unjust,' since life operates essentially, that is in its basic functions, through injury, assault, exploitation, destruction and simply cannot be thought of at all without this character. One must indeed grant something even more unpalatable: that, from the highest biological standpoint, legal conditions can never be other than exceptional conditions, since they constitute a partial restriction of the will of life, which is bent upon power, and are subordinate to its total goal as a single means: namely, as a means of creating greater units of power. A legal order thought of as sovereign and universal, not as a means in the struggle between power complexes but as a means of preventing all struggle in general perhaps after the communistic cliché of Dühring, that every will must consider every other will its equal—would be a principle hostile to life, an agent of the dissolution and destruction of man, an attempt to assassinate the future of man, a sign of weariness, a secret path to nothingness.[28]

Individual psychology

Alfred Adler borrowed heavily from Nietzsche's work to develop his second Viennese school of psychotherapy called individual psychology. Adler (1912) wrote in his important book Über den nervösen Charakter (The Neurotic Constitution):

Nietzsche's "Will to power" and "Will to seem" embrace many of our views, which again resemble in some respects the views of Féré and the older writers, according to whom the sensation of pleasure originates in a feeling of power, that of pain in a feeling of feebleness (Ohnmacht).[29]

Adler's adaptation of the will to power was and still is in contrast to Sigmund Freud's pleasure principle or the "will to pleasure", and to Viktor Frankl's logotherapy or the "will to meaning".[30] Adler's intent was to build a movement that would rival, even supplant, others in psychology by arguing for the holistic integrity of psychological well-being with that of social equality. His interpretation of Nietzsche's will to power was concerned with the individual patient's overcoming of the superiority-inferiority dynamic.[31]

In Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl compared his third Viennese school of psychotherapy with Adler's psychoanalytic interpretation of the will to power:

... the striving to find a meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power stressed by Adlerian psychology.[32]
—Viktor E. Frankl, M.D., Ph.D.

See also


  1. ^ Whitlock, Greg. "Roger Boscovich, Benedict de Spinoza and Friedrich Nietzsche: The Untold Story." Nietzsche Studien, 25 (1996) pp 200–220
  2. ^ Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (1886; New York: Vintage Books, 1966), §12.
  3. ^ Anderson, R. Lanier (1994). "Nietzsche’s Will to Power as a Doctrine of the Unity of Science". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 25 (5): 738. "Boscovich's theory of centers of force was prominent in Germany at the time. Boscovich’s theory 'is echoed in Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, which reduces matter to force altogether. Kant’s view, in turn, became very influential in German physics through the work of Hermann von Helmholtz and his followers. By the time Nietzsche wrote, treating matter in terms of fields of force was the dominant understanding of the fundamental notions of physics.'" 
  4. ^ Gregory Moore, Nietzsche, Biology, Metaphor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  5. ^ Wolfgang Müller-Lauter, “The Organism as Inner Struggle: Wilhelm Roux’s Influence on Nietzsche,” in Nietzsche: His Philosophy of Contradictions and the Contradictions of His Philosophy, trans. David J. Parent (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 161–82.
  6. ^ Section 13
  7. ^ Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufman (1887; New York: Vintage Books, 1974), §127.
  8. ^ Robin Small, Nietzsche in Context (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001), 166.
  9. ^ Small, Nietzsche in Context, 167.
  10. ^ Moore, Nietzsche, Biology, Metaphor, 47.
  11. ^ Thomas H. Brobjer, “Nietzsche’s Reading and Private Library, 1885–1889,” Journal of the History of Ideas 58, no. 4 (Oct 1997): 663–93.
  12. ^ Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §259.
  13. ^ Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §349.
  14. ^ Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §§ 22, 23 36, 44 (“Macht-Willen,” translated "power-will"), 51, 186, 198, 211, 227, 257 (“Willenskräfte und Macht-Begierden” translated “strength of will and lust for power”), 259.
  15. ^ Brobjer says it is the most heavily annotated book of his 1886 reading, “Nietzsche’s Reading and Private Library,” 679.
  16. ^ quoted in Anette Horn, “Nietzsche’s interpretation of his sources on Darwinism: Idioplasma, Micells and military troops,” South African Journal of Philosophy 24, no. 4 (2005): 260–72.
  17. ^ Horn, "Nietzsche's Interpretation of his Sources," 265–66.
  18. ^ Moore, Nietzsche, Biology, Metaphor, 55.
  19. ^ Cf. Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil, §13; Gay Science, §349; Genealogy of Morals, II:12.
  20. ^ The phrase will to power appears in “147 entries of the Colli and Montinari edition of the Nachlass. ... one-fifth of the occurrences of Wille zur Macht have to do with outlines of various lengths of the projected but ultimately abandoned book.” Linda L. Williams, “Will to Power in Nietzsche's Published Works and the Nachlass,” Journal of the History of Ideas 57, no. 3 (1996): 447–63, 450.
  21. ^ Whitlock, “Boscovich, Spinoza and Nietzsche,” 207.
  22. ^ cf. Williams, “Will to Power in Nietzsche's Published Works and the Nachlass."
  23. ^ For discussion, see Whitlock, “Roger Boscovich, Benedict de Spinoza and Friedrich Nietzsche;” Moles, “Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence as Riemannian Cosmology;” Christa Davis Acampora, “Between Mechanism and Teleology: Will to Power and Nietzsche’s Gay ‘Science’,” in Nietzsche & Science, 171–188 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004); Stack, “Nietzsche and Boscovich’s Natural Philosophy;” and Small “The Physics of Eternal Recurrence,” in Nietzsche in Context, 135–152.
  24. ^ Nietzsche, The Will To Power, §1067
  25. ^ Friedrich Nietzsche. Nachlass, Fall 1880 6 [206]
  26. ^ Mazzino Montinari, Friedrich Nietzsche (1974), 121.
  27. ^ Nietzsche, The Will to Power, §636
  28. ^ Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, II:11
  29. ^ Adler, Alfred (1912/1917). The Neurotic Constitution. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company. pp. ix. http://www.archive.org/details/neuroticconstitu00adle. 
  30. ^ Seidner, Stanley S. (June 10, 2009) "A Trojan Horse: Logotherapeutic Transcendence and its Secular Implications for Theology". Mater Dei Institute
  31. ^ Ansbacher, Heinz; Ansbacher, Rowena R. (1956). The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. Harper Perennial (1964). pp. 132–133. ISBN 0061311545. 
  32. ^ Frankl, Viktor (1959). Man's Search for Meaning. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press. p. 154. ISBN 0671023373. 

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